The Prison-Industrial Complex

The Prison-Industrial Complex

Today, we hear the term “prison-industrial complex” a take-off on the older term “military-industrial complex,” which was coined by President Eisenhower in his televised farewell address to the nation in 1961. The prison-industrial complex refers to companies and governments that build and operate prisons and buy or sell goods and services used or produced in correctional facilities. This “complex” involves a complicated relationship between governments, the correctional systems they administer, and the private corporations supplying goods and services to correctional facilities.

The phrase “prison-industrial complex” was intended as a derogatory term, implying a motive to incarcerate more offenders. Profiteers and unions representing correctional officers are accused of encouraging large prison populations to secure their jobs and profits. Modern incarceration is compared to the exploitation of antebellum slavery. Many prisoner advocates denounce the profiteers of the “prison-industrial complex,” and instead demand the elimination of oppression, injustice, poverty and racism. Most such prison advocates are horrified that someone might be making a profit.

This term is misleading, because it implies thriving industries and the industrious working of prison labor. We do not exploit “new age slaves” in economic terms. To the contrary, they are the best-supported welfare recipients in the nation. Percentage-wise, very few work full-time, and private industry is not permitted to fully use or exploit prison labor. Modern socialists complain of this alleged conspiracy, but a fully industrialized prison system is actually something we need and do not have.

Private correctional corporations replicate the warehousing function of prisons and try to do so at less cost than a government-run prison. But they do not run efficient prison industries or make many profits from the labor of the prisoners. Over 100 years ago, prisons used to make profits, but that changed with the Hawes-Cooper Act of 1929, which took away the interstate commerce status of prison-made goods, allowing states to bar them from sale. Many states then prohibited the sale of those goods. The Ashurst-Sumners Act of 1935, as amended in 1940, prohibited interstate shipment of prison-made goods. In 1936, the Walsh-Healey Act banned convict labor on federal procurement contracts. As a result of these legal barriers, the prison-industrial complex as a whole never became very industrious. It has primarily been an “industry” of government jobs making things for the government. We ought to repeal those and other statutes to permit prisoners to work for private businesses or religious organizations under any terms the parties can negotiate; provided that, prison industries manufactured products now made exclusively overseas.

Prisoners want to work, and work is good for them, their victims, their families and the state. Prison wardens complained and objected when prison industries were squashed with protective legislation, because it made the warden’s job far more difficult. Idleness is the devil’s workshop. Rehabilitation suffered. Hard labor and imparting a work ethic rehabilitates offenders and teaches them to survive in the free world. Prisoners without work think criminal thoughts, create gangs and learn better how to commit crimes when released.

Socialists coined the word “capitalism” as a pejorative term. Some conservatives still prefer the term “free enterprise.” Those who favor the private sector for industrial functions might adopt the “prison-industrial complex” as a worthy goal. Instead of dreading the term “prison-industrial complex,” we should bring more private industry into our prison complexes.